Is Madison Police Chief Noble Wray the man for the 21st-century job of urban policing?
Portrait by Dan Bishop
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On a cool April morning, a young, unknown woman walked through the quiet streets of Madison. She was just one of thousands of other students hurrying back and forth between the University of Wisconsin and their run-down rentals scattered throughout the downtown.
As she walked along, her mind may have been on the test she’d just taken. It could have been on her wedding plans still in the making. Or it may have been on what the people who wanted to sublet her apartment might be like, since she was heading home to meet them.
But maybe her mind was on the increasing sketchiness of her Doty Street neighborhood and the characters who were frequenting it, a symptom of how Madison was growing and changing, moving from college town to urban city, with all the problems that brings. There’s no way she could know what this change would mean for her. In the next hours, a stranger would kick down her bedroom door, then beat and stab her to death.
Within hours, we would all learn the name of Brittany Zimmermann, local law enforcement would launch a massive search for her killer—who is still at large—and an enormous weight would fall on the shoulders of Madison’s bright young chief of police, Noble Wray.
Over the next few months, solving this crime, and a string of other murders, would come to seem like almost a mission to save the city from itself.
Rewind the tape a couple decades, and move the camera eighty miles to the east, and you’ll see a young boy walking home from school on the north side of Milwaukee. That’s where Noble Wray lived with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. Wray was the seventh in line, and as he hiked through the streets, his mind surely wasn’t on his hometown and how it was changing. Once a place with working class jobs that paid enough to raise a family, Milwaukee was on its way to being dubbed one of America’s most dangerous cities.
But young Noble’s mind was probably on more practical matters, like how to pick the best route home to avoid the new gang in town—the Black P. Stone Rangers—who controlled certain areas of the city. Yet when he did finally get to his family’s house across from St. Boniface Church, where they were part of Father James Groppi’s congregation, it was a warm place full of life, even if it wasn’t full of money.
“Let me put it this way,” says Wray’s older brother Jessie. “We had ten kids and one chicken in the house.”
Raising such a big family during Milwaukee’s downhill slide was no doubt why Wray’s parents—his mom was a local school cook, his dad a community activist—sent Noble and his siblings first to summer camp in Waukesha County, then to a tiny high school, JFK Prep, in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, where they had scholarships.
“It was promoted as a leadership school,” remembers Doug Lefeber, who went to school there with Wray. “And you grew up early. You lived in dorms and you got over your homesickness at an early age. You had responsibilities.”
“Noble was very focused,” says former classmate and family friend Edward Sherard. “He was younger than us, but he acted older and more mature than we were.”